OPENING-2Unless you’ve had your head in the sand for the last fortnight (entirely feasible of course, given it’s holiday season!), then you’ve probably already clocked onto the fact that something called Pokémon Go is currently sweeping across the country.

But have you realised that Pokémon Go is a unique opportunity for churches to engage with those who’ve perhaps never stepped inside the doors of a church building?

To explain more, I was fortunate to ‘catch’ myself a Pokemon Grandmaestro (ok, so I just made that term up) and quiz him all about it. David Blain (no, not the illusionist) is a huge Pokémon Go fan and a member of St Michael’s Church, Fulwell in South-west London.

Ok David, so let’s start with the basics. For those who’ve never heard of a Pikachu, what on earth is Pokémon Go?

Pokémon Go is basically the latest iteration of the Pokémon series of games. You might recognise the name from back in the ’90s when people played the original Pokémon games on Nintendo GameBoys. Pokémon were cute and colourful monsters living in a fictional world, and the point of the game was essentially to catch as many as you could.

However, the big difference – and the real draw – with Pokémon Go is that you’re now catching Pokémon in the real world. Let me explain! The Pokémon Go app (available on both Apple & Android devices) uses Google Maps technology to superimpose Pokémon around our actual streets and parks. By using the GPS function on your phone the app then detects where you are and so your screen becomes a real-time Pokemon world in your own neighbourhood.

Admittedly I’m late to the Pokémon Go party (I blame being on holiday!), but I’ve since caved in and started playing – and you’re right, playing in the ‘real world’ is a pretty cool experience – it feels like the first time a game has involved anything like this!

That’s right – and although Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go, have purposefully staggered its release across different countries and continents, already its total download figures are encroaching on Twitter, which has been around for 10 years! Pokémon Go has been out in the UK since July 14th.

I think for many in the late-twenties/thirties age group there’s certainly a strong nostalgic element that comes from having grown up playing Pokémon on our gameboys. But it’s undeniable that the main attraction is the fact that you play the game by interacting with your actual environment. It’s a completely new gaming experience. You’ll find yourself chatting on the street with people you’ve never met, asking them which Pokémon they’ve found or trying to team up with them to defeat a rival team. Pokémon Go describes this as ‘Augmented Reality’, and I think we’re going to start seeing a whole heap of games & apps follow in Pokémon Go’s footsteps.

I know some people may dismiss Pokémon Go as a passing fad, but I’m interested in asking why the game has become as popular as it has. Why do you think it has taken the western world by storm? 

Absolutely, that’s an important question. Of course, it’s fun – and it’s new. But ultimately I think too that it taps into the way we’ve been created & wired. Trevin Wax has argued that it meets a common longing for both community and wonder, and I think he’s on the money. He puts it like this:

In a world where we feel like people are pulling apart, [Pokémon Go] provides a momentary feeling of togetherness.

[It] also taps into our longing for something beyond the flattened, rationalist society of our age. For a moment, we feel the magic of the old mythologies and long for something beyond this present world.

Those are really interesting observations! But why is Pokémon Go a particular opportunity for churches?

As I mentioned, Pokémon Go uses the technology from Google Maps to overlap a game map onto a real map. This means that special in-game locations are overlayed onto actual places of interest from Google Maps. In Pokémon Go there are two particular types of in-game locations: Pokéstops and Gyms. Pokéstops are special fixed locations where you can collect useful items for the game, such as Pokéballs (which you need to capture Pokémon). Gyms are also fixed locations – they’re where you can use your Pokémon to fight other players’ Pokémon, in order to compete to be the best in the Gym and earn the status of Gym Leader.

Typically these Pokéstops and Gyms will be places like pubs, train stations, and – wait for it – churches! That means there’s every chance that your church will be a key location for those who are playing Pokémon Go in your area! And because the whole point of the game is that players have to ‘Go’ to these places to access them (i.e. they can’t just sit at home), people will be purposefully coming within close proximity of your church to access its in-game benefits.

Ok, so the chances are that if a church is a Pokéstop or a Gym then there’s going to be people congregating around it over the next few weeks? Sounds like an opportunity! 

ExactlyOf all the thrills of playing the game (!), still one of my personal highlights was walking up Wilcox Road in Teddington to my church, St Michael’s Fulwell, and seeing on my screen that it was a Pokémon Gym. On one level I was selfishly pleased because I could now try and be the Gym leader at my own church, but on another level it just seemed an obvious opportunity to engage those who might never have actually stepped into the church building.

So how have churches been making the most of this opportunity, and what are you guys doing in Teddington?

Lots of churches are making the most of the opportunity of being key locations in the game. Often this will involve simply opening up the church (if it’s not constantly open) for particular welcoming sessions with refreshments. This could also involve sharing that you’re a Pokéstop/Gym on your social media feeds (and maybe even sponsoring the social media posts geographically). At the very least, put a sign up! And why not get in touch with your local media to let them know – it’s the kind of story that some local media outlets love.

You probably also want to make sure your church congregation is aware of what’s happening so that they’re ready to welcome people! The Church of England issued a recommendation that particularly suggested creating battery charging stations (playing Pokémon Go massively drains phone batteries!) or offering the church’s wifi details (playing Pokémon Go can also drain a typical phone’s data allowance pretty quick, so wifi is very handy!). They’ve also pointed out that it’s important to take appropriate child protection action, after the NSPCC raised concerns about the game.

In our case, St Michael’s is a traditional church building in a thriving residential area – but up until two years ago it had actually become disused. But recently a team was invited by the Bishop of Kensington to re-launch the church and essentially the congregation has been steadily growing ever since. Our aim is to rebuild a gospel-centred community for Fulwell, Teddington and beyond.

I guess like any church, we’re trying to find innovative ways of engaging with our community and giving people the chance to discover what we’re about: the good news of Jesus Christ. So when we realised our church was a Pokémon Gym, our Youth & Children’s worker, Jonny Woodbridge, had the idea of running an event where we “officially” open the ‘St Michael’s church Pokémon Gym’.

Sounds great. So what’s going to happen at the Opening event?

PokemonWell, you can check out our website, which has all the details, but the big idea is to sandwich Pokémon-themed activities between our 10am Family Service and our church family picnic lunch. These activities will include:

  • a large screen TV directly at the point of the Pokémon Gym on the church grounds, so that players can compete to be Gym Leader in front of an audience (we’ll have a cable that allows iPhone/Android phones to plug into the screen);
  • players will have a chance to get advice from some of the church congregation who are fairly high level players in the game;
  • there may also be a chance to meet the St Michael’s Pokémon Gym Leader (I say “may” because at the time of writing that happens to be yours truly, but the reality of Pokémon Go is that this can change at any minute!);
  • another big incentive will be free Pokémon Go gym badges which we’ll give out depending on a player’s chosen team in the game. Gym badges are part of the original Pokémon games but haven’t yet been included in Pokémon Go, so we’re offering something novel and slightly nostalgic (we’ll even have a set of badges reserved just for those who manage to become St Michael’s Gym Leader!);
  • after the event we’ll invite everyone to the church family picnic at the local park, with the opportunity for even more Pokémon catching – and Rounders!

Now, I’m sure some people are wondering if it’s worth all the effort. Likewise, is this an example of the Church trying too hard to be trendy? I know some have criticised any church involvement as falling for a gimmick. Indeed, that’s how a Daily Mail article is spinning the Church of England’s press release. So why should a church bother investing time & energy into something similar to what you guys are planning in Teddington? 

Well, as we’ve already said, if something becomes as popular as Pokémon Go has become, then there’s probably some significance behind why that’s the case. That’s worth thinking about. But yes, ok, Pokémon Go isn’t going to last forever. Certainly, by releasing the game at the start of the school holidays, Niantic have struck gold – it’s going to be around all summer-long at least. And although there are some features in the game that haven’t yet been released (i.e. the ‘novel’ factor will inevitably be lengthened as and when they are), yes, the chances are that by the time we hit September, Pokémon Go will probably have peaked. But that’s always going to be the case with these sort of things. Seasons come and go. Just think about how many churches joined in with celebrating the Queen’s 90th Birthday. We didn’t complain about her birthday only lasting a day! So let’s make the most of this unique window whilst we have it.

– Secondly, of course if no one in your church congregation is remotely aware of Pokémon Go, I’m not suggesting you all go download the app and try and play! It’s about playing to your strengths. We’ve got keen Pokémon Go players in our church family, so having a special Opening event is a natural move. We’d be playing it anyway! So, do what works for you. Maybe you could get a small team of hosts together and put a few posters up explaining that the church building will be open at various times, with drinks & cake available?

maxresdefault– Thirdly, we’re under no false pretence about what this will achieve. Of course, it would be amazing if someone came to the Gym Opening and discovered Jesus in the midst of  a conversation about catching Jigglypuffs – but that’s not what we’re expecting! It’s about helping people in the local community see the church building as a place where they’re welcome. It also allows us to put a personal face on the church, and to connect with people who might never have stepped into our church building before. 

For example, before our church service on Sunday morning I saw a boy hiding behind the fence next to the church. He was clearly playing Pokémon Go in the church’s Gym but he was perhaps unsure whether he was allowed to come any closer. Contrast that with the evening when we were testing out playing Pokémon Go on a big screen outside the church. A father and daughter walked up to the church gates and asked about the game and the church and what was happening and we were able to chat and tell them about the Opening.

And who knows? Maybe coming to the Opening will mean someone is that bit more likely to accept an invitation to come to a Christmas service, or to respond positively to an advert for one of our more regular youth events? A relationship has to begin somewhere.

There’s probably also people who don’t play the game but have heard about it in the news and upon seeing a poster might be interested to see what playing the game actually involves – as well as finding our why their local church is engaging with it.

Anything else to add?

Just to say, don’t be disheartened if your church isn’t a Pokéstop or Gym! There are other opportunities…

– Given so many people are playing Pokémon, the chances are there’ll be some/many in your congregation who are too! So why not encourage people to play together? We often talk in our churches about ‘doing life together’. We might go for walks together or watch TV shows together. So why not set a time and agree to meet-up in a local park and spend an afternoon catching some Pokémon together? You’ll probably be surprised at the spread of ages and people. Or take the youth group out on a walk and see what happens – I’m sure there’ll be ample conversations as well as Pokémon.

– Also, one of the things that’s been picked up in the news reports quite a bit is how Pokémon Go has just got people talking to each other. Certainly I’ve had more conversations with ‘strangers’ in the last fortnight than I’ve probably had in the rest of my adult life! So just use it to get talking and get to know people.

Oh – and you can download Pokémon Go here!

Why not share ideas and stories from what your church has tried in the comments below?